Jazz CD Reviews

The Kandinsky Effect – Synesthesia – Cuneiform

Modernistic, multinational jazz with cinematic and geographical influences.

Published on April 28, 2013

The Kandinsky Effect – Synesthesia – Cuneiform RUNE 358, 48:58 [1/15/13] ****:

(Warren Walker – saxophone, effects; Gaël Petrina – bass, effects; Caleb Dolister – drums, laptop)

What do the father of abstract art, a Danish avant-garde filmmaker, and a British seaside resort town have in common? That would be the multinational jazz trio The Kandinsky Effect. The threesome include saxophonist Warren Walker (a former Californian now living in Paris), bassist Gaël Petrina (who also calls France home) and drummer Caleb Dolister (who resides in New York City). Walker and Dolister met at the University of Nevada, Reno, while Walker and Petrina began performing together after Walker moved to the city of the Eiffel Tower. The two founded The Kandinsky Effect in 2007 (with another drummer); released an eponymous debut CD in 2010 on Dolister’s independent SNP label; and brought Dolister into the line-up for the group’s sophomore effort, Synesthesia, issued on the likeminded Cuneiform imprint.

The Kandinsky Effect is named after Wassily Kandinsky, the influential Russian painter and art theorist who is credited with painting the first purely abstract works. The idea or use of color also presides over the album title: synesthesia is a neurological condition where sensory stimuli can have secondary sensory impacts (i.e., specific letters are seen with specific colors by some who suffer from synesthesia). The nature of perceiving things differently suffuses The Kandinsky Effect’s material. The three musicians have not abandoned jazz history, but their music has a definite 21st-century flavor: many tracks are hued by effects, electronics and digital processing; and compositions have a modern, sometimes non-linear shape, thus sharing sonic terrain similar to other electronica-coated outfits such as Kneebody.

Film is tapped as one source of inspiration. Opener “Johnny Utah” refers to Keanu Reeves’ FBI role in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action/cops and robbery picture, Point Break. The tune begins with a slinky bass line, a terse, insistent drum rhythm and a straightforward melodic sax riff. The bass heads into a low-toned throb blanketed by an echo-laden treatment, which also affects the sax; eventually the cut morphs into a progressive jam section where Walker gets wilder during a solo spot, and studio effects cluster in the mid-channel area. The harmonics also veer into alternative-music territory, less jazz and more left-leaning rock. It may be stretching the likeness, but the track’s distinct modification from clear-cut to conceptual seems to mirror how Reeves’ Point Blank character, Johnny Utah, changes from unequivocal good guy to an ambiguous person who sympathizes with the villains. Cinema of a different kind shapes “Lars Von Trier,” titled after the Danish director and screenwriter, who co-founded the Dogme 95 collective, the infamous avant-garde filmmaking movement. There is a more austere interchange on this relatively stationary trio number: less digital manipulation than other pieces, and a slight Ornette Coleman-esque touch due to an amalgamated melody coupled with a freely-flowing rhythm foundation. Like the filmmaker, “Lars Von Trier” flaunts an iconoclastic spirit.

The Kandinsky Effect’s international structure can be heard in several ways. First, there is the mid-tempo yet rhythmically persistent “Brighton,” (seemingly named after the destination for many Londoners who want to experience a day trip along the pier). As Walker rides higher up on sax, Petrina offers a steadfast bottom-end bass riff which would not be out of place on a Radiohead record. At various points, an unexpected glockenspiel highlights the melody. Probably also geographically centered is “Lobi Mobi/Hotel 66.” The first part appears to signify the Lobi people, an ethnic group in the African nation of Ghana; the second half suggests either the ubiquitous Motel 6 chain or any general stopover along the famed Route 66, the historic U.S. highway which predated the interstate freeway system. Regardless, the moderately short “Lobi Mobi/Hotel 66” finds the trio in basic jazz mode, where conventional bass and drums back Walker’s exquisite tenor. That leads into the marginally contentious “Mexican Gift Shop,” which features Petrina’s murky and muddy bass, a sustained ambient sax tone (finessed via electronics), and some effective manufactured noises here and there. The mobile “Walking…” has a related type of arrangement, although the rhythmic motifs are more precisely haphazard, a series of unruly splashes of electro-laced bass and rebellious drum rhythms. While the beat is willfully recalcitrant, Walker holds the melody throughout and keeps things grounded.

The Kandinsky Effect is an accomplished band not because they implement electronics into jazz music, but rather for how they utilize electronic configurations to make their music radiate; and the manner in which they play their instruments (and play around with the sounds their instruments create). There is a fine line in the merger of electronics with jazz, between concrete inspiration and auditory conflict. The Kandinsky Effect’s approach (letting the music breathe and not plugging in all of the empty spaces) means they produce music which does not tire with focused and repetitive listening.

TrackList: Johnny Utah; M.C.; Cusba; WK51; Walking…; Brighton; Left Over Shoes; Lobi Mobi/Hotel 66; Mexican Gift Shop; Lars Von Trier; If Only.

—Doug Simpson




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